THE ORIGINS OF HALLOWEEN (c) copyright 1989, Rowan Moonstone In recent years, there have b
THE ORIGINS OF HALLOWEEN
(c) copyright 1989, Rowan Moonstone
In recent years, there have been a number of pamphlets and books put
out be various Christian organizations dealing with the origins of
modern- day Halloween customs.
Being a Witch myself, and a student of the ancient Celts from whom we
get this holiday, I have found these pamphlets woefully inaccurate and
poorly researched. A typical example of this information is contained
in the following quote from the pamphlet entitled "What's Wrong with
Halloween?" by Russell K. Tardo. "The Druids believed that on October
31st, the last day of the year by the ancient Celtic calendar, the
lord of death gathered together the souls of the dead who had been
made to enter bodies of animals, and decided what forms they should
take the following year. Cats were held sacred because it was believed
that they were once human beings ... We see that this holiday has its
origin, basis and root in the occultic Druid celebration of the dead.
Only they called it 'Samhain', who was the lord of the dead (a big
demon)".1 When these books and pamphlets cite sources at all, they
usually list the Encyclopaedia Brittannica, Encyclopedia Americana,
and the World Book Encyclopedia. The Brittannica and the Americana
make no mention of cats, but do, indeed list Samhain as the Lord of
Death, contrary to Celtic scholars, and list no references. The World
Book mentions the cats, and calls Samhain the Lord of Death, and lists
as its sources several children's books (hardly what one could
consider scholarly texts, and, of course, themselves citing no
In an effort to correct some of this erroneous information, I have
researched the religious life of the ancient Celtic peoples and the
survivals of that religious life in modern times. Listed below are
some of the most commonly asked questions concerning the origins and
customs of Halloween. Following the questions is a lengthy
bibliography where the curious reader can go to learn more about this
holiday than space in this small pamphlet permits.
1. Where does Halloween come from?
Our modern celebration of Halloween is a descendent of the
ancient Celtic festival called "Samhain". The word is
pronounced "sow-in", with "sow" rhyming with "cow".
2. What does "Samhain" mean?
The Irish-English Dictionary published by the Irish Texts
Society defines the word as follows: "Samhain, All Hallowtide,
the feast of the dead in Pagan and Christian times, signaling
the close of harvest and the initiation of the winter season,
lasting till May, during which troops were quartered. Fairies
were imagined as particularly active at this season. From it,
the half-year is reckoned. Also called Feile Moingfinne (Snow
Goddess).2 The Scottish Gaelic Dictionary defines it as
"Hallowtide. The Feast of All Souls. Sam + Fuin = end of
summer."3 Contrary to the information published by many
organizations, there is no archaeological or literary evidence
to indicate that Samhain was a deity. Eliade's Encyclopedia of
Religion states as follows: "The Eve and day of Samhain were
characterized as a time when the barriers between the human
and supernatural worlds were broken... Not a festival honoring
any particular Celtic deity, Samhain acknowledged the entire
spectrum of nonhuman forces that roamed the earth during that
period."4 The Celtic Gods of the dead were Gwynn ap Nudd for
the British and Arawn for the Welsh. The Irish did not have a
"lord of death" as such.
3. Why was the end of summer of significance to the Celts?
The Celts were a pastoral people as opposed to an agricultural
people. The end of summer was significant to them because it
meant the time of year when the structure of their lives
changed radically. The cattle were brought down from the
summer pastures in the hills and the people were gathered into
the houses for the long winter nights of story- telling and
4. What does it have to do with a festival of the dead?
The Celts believed that when people died, they went to a land
of eternal youth and happiness called Tir nan Og. They did not
have the concept of heaven and hell that the Christian church
later brought into the land. The dead were sometimes believed
to be dwelling with the Fairy Folk, who lived in the numerous
mounds, or sidhe, (pronounced "shee" or "sh-thee") that dotted
the Irish and Scottish countryside. Samhain was the new year
to the Celts. In the Celtic belief system, turning points,
such as the time between one day and the next, the meeting of
sea and shore, or the turning of one year into the next were
seen as magickal times. The turning of the year was the most
potent of these times. This was the time when the "veil
between the worlds" was at its thinnest, and the living could
communicate with their beloved dead in Tir nan Og.
5. What about the aspects of "evil' that we associate with the
The Celts did not have demons and devils in their belief
system. The fairies, however, were often considered hostile
and dangerous to humans because they were seen as being
resentful of man taking over their land. On this night, they
would sometimes trick humans into becoming lost in the fairy
mounds, where they would be trapped forever. After the coming
of the Christians to the Celtic lands, certain of the folk saw
the fairies as those angels who had sided neither with God or
with Lucifer in their dispute, and thus were condemned to walk
the earth until judgment day.5
In addition to the fairies, many humans were abroad on this
night, causing mischief. Since this night belonged neither to
one year or the other, Celtic folk believed that chaos
reigned, and the people would engage in "horseplay and
practical jokes".6 This also served as a final outlet for high
spirits before the gloom of winter set in.
6. What about "trick or treat"?
During the course of these hijinks, many of the people would
imitate the fairies and go from house to house begging for
treats. Failure to supply the treats would usually result in
practical jokes being visited on the owner of the house. Since
the fairies were abroad on this night, an offering of food or
milk was frequently left for them on the steps of the house,
so the homeowner could gain the blessing of the "good folk"
for the coming year. Many of the households would also leave
out a "dumb supper" for the spirits of the departed.9 The
folks who were abroad in the night imitating the fairies would
sometimes carry turnips carved to represent faces. This is the
origin of our modern Jack-o-lantern.
7. Was there any special significance of cats to the Celts?
According to Katherine Briggs in Nine Lives: Cats in
Folklore,, the Celts associated cats with the Cailleach Bheur,
or Blue Hag of Winter. "She was a nature goddess, who herded
the deer as her cattle. The touch of her staff drove the
leaves off the trees and brought snow and harsh weather."7
Dr. Anne Ross addresses the use of divine animals in her book
Pagan Celtic Britain and has this to day about cats."Cats do
not play a large role in Celtic mythology ... the evidence for
the cat as an important cult animal in Celtic mythology is
slight"8 She cites as supporting evidence, the lack of
archaeological artifacts and literary references in surviving
works of mythology.
8. Was this also a religious festival?
Yes. Celtic religion was very closely tied to the Earth. Their
great legends are concerned with momentous happenings which
took place around the time of Samhain. Many of the great
battles and legends of kings and heroes center on this night.
Many of the legends concern the promotion of fertility of the
earth and the insurance of the continuance of the lives of the
people through the dark winter season.
9. How was the religious festival observed?
Unfortunately, we know very little about that. W.G.
Wood-Martin, in his book, Traces of the Elder Faiths of
Ireland, states, "There is comparatively little trace of the
religion of the Druids now discoverable, save in the folklore
of the peasantry, and the references relative to it that occur
in ancient and authentic Irish manuscripts are, as far as
present appearances go, meager and insufficient to support
anything like a sound theory for full development of the
The Druids were the priests of the Celtic peoples. They passed
on their teachings by oral tradition instead of committing
them to writing, so when they perished, most of their
religious teachings were lost. We do know that this festival
was characterized as one of the four great "Fire Festivals" of
the Celts. Legends tell us that on this night, all the hearth
fires in Ireland were extinguished, and then re-lit from the
central fire of the Druids at Tlachtga, 12 miles from the
royal hill of Tara. This fire was kindled from "need fire"
which had been generated by the friction of rubbing two sticks
together, as opposed to more conventional methods (such as the
flint- and-steel method) common in those days.11 The
extinguishing of the fires symbolized the "dark half" of the
year, and the re-kindling from the Druidic fires was symbolic
of the returning life hoped for, and brought about through the
ministrations of the priesthood.
10. What about sacrifices?
Animals were certainly killed at this time of year. This was
the time to "cull" from the herds those animals which were not
desired for breeding purposes for the next year. Most
certainly, some of these would have been done in a ritual
manner for the use of the priesthood.
11. Were humans sacrificed?
Scholars are sharply divided on this account, with about half
believing that it took place and half doubting its veracity.
Caesar and Tacitus certainly tell tales of the human
sacrifices of the Celts, but Nora Chadwick points out in her
book The Celts that "it is not without interest that the
Romans themselves had abolished human sacrifice not long
before Caesar's time, and references to the practice among
various barbarian peoples have certain overtones of
self-righteousness. There is little direct archaeological
evidence relevant to Celtic sacrifice."12 Indeed, there is
little reference to this practice in Celtic literature. The
only surviving story echoes the tale of the Minotaur in Greek
legend: the Fomorians, a race of evil giants said to inhabit
portions of Ireland before the coming of the Tuatha de Danaan
(or "people of the Goddess Danu"), demanded the sacrifice of
2/3 of the corn, milk, and first born children of the Fir
Bolg, or human inhabitants of Ireland. The de Danaan ended
this practice in the second battle of Moy Tura, which
incidentally, took place on Samhain. It should be noted,
however, that this story appears in only one (relatively
modern) manuscript from Irish literature, and that manuscript,
the "Dinnsenchus", is known to be a collection of fables.
According to P.W. Joyce in Vol. 2 of his Social History of
Ancient Ireland, "Scattered everywhere through our ancient
literature, both secular and ecclesiastical, we find abundant
descriptions and details of the rites and superstitions of the
pagan Irish; and in no place - with this single exception - do
we find a word or hint pointing to human sacrifice to pagan
gods or idols."13
12. What other practices were associated with this season?
Folk tradition tells us of many divination practices
associated with Samhain. Among the most common were
divinations dealing with marriage, weather, and the coming
fortunes for the year. These were performed via such methods
as ducking for apples and apple peeling. Ducking for apples
was a marriage divination. The first person to bite an apple
would be the first to marry in the coming year. Apple peeling
was a divination to see how long your life would be. The
longer the unbroken apple peel, the longer your life was
destined to be.14 In Scotland, people would place stones in
the ashes of the hearth before retiring for the night. Anyone
whose stone had been disturbed during the night was said to be
destined to die during the coming year.
13. How did these ancient Celtic practices come to America?
When the potato crop in Ireland failed, many of the Irish
people, modern descendants of the Celts, immigrated to
America, bringing with them their folk practices, which were
remnants of the Celtic festival observances.
14. We in America view this as a harvest festival. Did the Celts
also view it as such?
Yes. The Celts had 3 harvests. Aug 1, or Lammas, was the first
harvest, when the first fruits were offered to the Gods in
thanks. The Fall equinox was the true harvest. This was when
the bulk of the crops would be brought in. Samhain was the
final harvest of the year. Anything left on the vines or in
the fields after this date was considered blasted by the
fairies ("pu'ka") and unfit for human consumption.
15. Does anyone today celebrate Samhain as a religious observance?
Yes. many followers of various pagan religions, such as
Druidism and Wicca, observe this day as a religious festival.
They view it as a memorial day for their dead friends and
family, much as the world does the national Memorial Day
holiday in May. It is still a night to practice various forms
of divination concerning future events. It is also considered
a time to wrap up old projects, take stock of one's life, and
initiate new projects for the coming year. As the winter
season is approaching, it is a good time to do studying on
research projects, and also a good time to begin hand work
such as sewing, leather working, woodworking, etc., for Yule
gifts later in the year. And while "satanists" are using this
holiday as their own, this is certainly not the only example
of a holiday (or even religious symbols) being "borrowed" from
an older religion by a newer one.
16. Does this involve human or animal sacrifice?
Absolutely NOT! Hollywood to the contrary, blood sacrifice is
not practiced by modern followers of Wicca or Druidism. There
may be some people who THINK they are practicing Wicca by
performing blood sacrificing, but this is NOT condoned by
reputable practitioners of today's neo-Pagan religions.
1 Tardo, Russell K., What's Wrong with Halloween?, Faithful Word
Publishers, (Arabi, LA, undated), p. 2
2 Rev. Patrick Dinneen, An Irish English Dictionary, (Dublin,
1927), p. 937
3 Malcolm MacLennan, A Pronouncing and Etymological Dictionary
of the Gaelic Language, (Aberdeen, 1979), p. 279
4 The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade, "Halloween"
by Primiano, (New York, 1987) pp. 176-177
5 Katherine Briggs, Nine Lives: Cats in Folklore, (London,1980),
6 Dr. Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (London,1967), p. 301-302
7 W.G. Wood-Martin, Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland, Vol.
II, (Port Washington, NY, 1902), p. 5
8 Kevin Danaher, The Year in Ireland, (Cork, 1972), p. 214
9 Alwyn & Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage, (New York, 1961), p. 90
10 Wood-Martin, op. cit., p. 249
11 Rees & Rees, op. cit., p. 90
12 Nora Chadwick, The Celts, (Harmondsworth, 1982), p. 151
13 P.W. Joyce, A Social History of Ancient Ireland, Vol.2, (New
York, 1968), pp. 282-283
14 Madeleine Pelner Cosman, Medieval Holidays and Festivals, (New
York, 1981), p. 81
*Bord, Janet & Colin, The Secret Country, (London: Paladin Books,
*Briggs, Katherine, Nine Lives, Cats in Folklore, (London: Routledge &
Kegan Paul, 1980)
*Chadwick, Nora, The Celts, (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books,
*Coglan, Ronan, A Dictionary of Irish Myth and Legend, (Dublin: 1979)
*Cosman, Madeleine Pelner, Medieval Holidays and Festivals, (New York:
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1981)
*Danaher, Kevin, The Year in Ireland, (Cork, Ireland: The Mercier
*Dinneen, Rev. Patrick S., M.A., An Irish-English Dictionary, (Dublin:
The Irish Texts Society, 1927)
*Joyce, P.W., A Social History of Ancient Ireland, (New York: Benjamin
*MacCana, Proinsias, Celtic Mythology, (London: The Hamlyn Publishing
Group Limited, 1970)
*MacLennan, Malcolm, A pronouncing and Etymological Dictionary of the
Gaelic Language, (Aberdeen: Acair and Aberdeen University
*MacNeill, Maire', The Festival of Lughnasa, (Dublin: Comhairle
Bhealoideas Eireann, 1982)
*Powell, T.G.E., The Celts, (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1980)
*Primiano, Leonard Norman, "Halloween" from The Encyclopedia of
Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade, (New York, McMillan Publiching
*Rees, Alwyn and Brinley, Celtic Heritage, Ancient Tradition in
Ireland and Wales, (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1961)
*Ross, Dr. Anne, Pagan Celtic Britain, (London: Routledge and Kegan
*Sharkey, John, Celtic Mysteries, (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1975)
*Spence, Lewis, British Fairy Origins, (Wellingborough: Aquarian
*Squire, Charles, Celtic Myth & Legend, Poetry & Romance, (New York:
Newcastle Publishing Co., Inc., 1975)
*Toulson, Shirley, The Winter Solstice, (London: Jill Norman &
Hobhouse, Ltd., 1981)
*Wood-Martin, W.G., Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland, Vols. I &
II, (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1902)
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